An interview with E. O. Wilson: He’s still on about group selection

Matthew sent me a link to this interview with the renowned biologist E. O. Wilson published in The Chronicle Review (part of the Chronicle of Higher Education). It’s generally okay but has some reportorial errors and, sadly, documents Wilson’s continued insistence that human altruism evolved by selection among groups (“group selection”).  The article appears to have come from The Wall Street Journal; click on the screenshot to read it.

The interviewer, Charlie Tyson, a grad student at Harvard, should have not made the errors below, especially because he’s right there at Wilson’s school. Granted, these errors aren’t important, but bespeak a lack of journalistic care.

Errors of fact

The claim that Wilson’s lab and office were right down the hall from those of his adversarial colleagues Steve Gould and Dick Lewontin, and the claim that during the “sociobiology wars,” a protestor dumped a pitcher of ice water on Wilson’s head.

Here’s what Tyson wrote:

Not since Alfred Kinsey has an entomologist’s career been so marked by controversy. Wilson became a public figure in 1975 with Sociobiology (Harvard University Press), which argued that social behavior, in humans as in other species, has a biological foundation. Some critics — most notably Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, both just down the hall in Harvard’s biology department — saw the book as providing scientific cover for racism and sexism. In a well-known incident at the 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a demonstrator dumped a pitcher of ice water on his head, shouting, “Wilson, you’re all wet!”

No, their offices were not down the hall from each other, nor even on the same floor. Wilson’s office and labs were on the fourth floor of the MCZ labs, while Lewontin’s was on the first floor (for a year after he arrived at Harvard) and then on the third floor. Gould was located in another building: the Museum of Comparative Zoology proper, with his office on the ground floor. This would have been easy for Tyson to ascertain.

More important, it seem untrue that a pitcher of ice water was dumped on Wilson’s head at that meeting. That’s a biological urban legend that has been repeated many times. But it’s apparently wrong. The New Atlantis reports the truth: it was a cup of water, and was not dumped on his head:

 Most memorably, protesters rushed the stage at a February 1978 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science just as Wilson was about to begin a talk. They chanted “racist Wilson you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide” and threw a cup of water at him (later embellished in legend into a full pitcher of ice water).

The cup-of-water version is the way I’ve heard it from those who were there, and David Hull concurs (though not Ulrike Segerstrale). Wilson could have clarified this, but I guess Tyson didn’t ask him.

But on to the science. In the interview, Wilson maintains, as he has before, that group selection is the explanation for the evolution of altruism in humans. In his most recent set of books, he’s also maintained that nearly all traits that ‘make us human’, including creativity, music, and so on, also came via group selection.  Further, he’s maintained that eusociality in social insects (the division of the colony into non-reproducing but cooperating castes, with a reproductive queen) also had nothing to do with kin selection, but was also the product of differential reproduction and extinction of groups.

Virtually every expert in insect social evolution has objected to Wilson’s view, given in a paper in Nature with Tarnita and Nowak. Apparently the only people who accept Wilson et al.’s view are the three authors of that paper, along with group-selection enthusiasts like David Sloan Wilson. You can see all my posts on this controversy here and here.) I also wrote a critical review of Wilson’s book The Social Conquest of Earth, which laid out his group selection ideas for humans, in the Times Literary Supplement; the review is paywalled, but I have copyright and posted my review here. Finally, you can see links to letters in Nature from the 140-odd evolutionists who objected to Wilson et al.’s view of group selection as the cause of eusociality in insects at this post. (I was one of the signatories.)

Here’s a snippet from Tyson’s interview:

Q. Your new book, Genesis, offers for the general reader an introduction to how complex societies evolve. But for the more specialized reader, it doubles as a manifesto for group-selection theory.

A. I realized we needed to get it straight on where advanced eusocial behavior comes from. I’ve felt, without fail, that it comes from group selection.

I had been a main proponent of kin selection. In fact, I was the guy who met W.D. Hamilton way back, who promoted him and helped him. And I think kin selection does in fact occur.

Having introduced kin selection, Hamilton had, in my view, explained the origin of nepotism. But then he came up with something called “inclusive fitness.” He said: Maybe societies as a whole originate when a lot of individuals together are helping one another, or cooperating, to the degree that they are related to them. If they were all closely related, then there would be a lot of individuals cooperating, and you might have the origin of a society — particularly a society based on altruism. I favored that idea and mentioned it as far back as The Insect Societies (Harvard University Press) in 1971.

Inclusive fitness carried the day. But it just wasn’t working. I saw that there were big flaws in it.

Nope, there are no big flaws in inclusive fitness arguments. And they still carry the day. The idea of group selection creating major features of human evolution, or of evolution in general, is not widely accepted, for it has major flaws. Although Tyson characterizes Wilson’s argument accurately, saying “Within groups, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals — but altruistic groups beat selfish groups”, this is deeply flawed. As I wrote about Wilson’s words to that effect in his Chicago discussion with Alan Alda:

Wilson then said he was going to give the audience an equation about how group selection worked, and my heart sank as I imagined him trying to spout math. Fortunately, he said just this: “Within groups, selfish individuals outcompete altruistic ones. But altruistic groups outcompete selfish ones.” The audience applauded loudly, but of course didn’t realize that that is one of the big problems of group selection. Not only is the turnover of individuals within groups faster than the turnover of groups themselves (via splitting and extinction), but once you have a group of all altruists, it’s unstable to the invasion of selfish individuals who gain but do not give. One selfish person in an altruistic group will begin breeding like rabbits compared to the others. It’s thus quite problematic to assert that some many aspects of human behavior and morphology evolved by selection among groups rather than among individuals. If you want to read a comprehensive critique of the problems with group selection, you couldn’t do better than Steve Pinker’s Edge piece, “The false allure of group selection.

Pinker’s essay lays out far better than I could the problems with group selection, including the fact that there’s no evidence for it playing a role in the evolution of a single biological trait (I hold out sexual reproduction as a possible exception). The unfortunate situation is that Wilson is the best known evolutionary biologist alive, and has won two Pulitzer Prizes. When he speaks, people listen, and when he extolls group selection, the layperson believes him. They don’t know the problems with Wilson’s Big Hypothesis.

I’m not sure why Wilson, at the end of his career, has fixed his colors to the leaky vessel H. M. S. Group Selection. I’ve heard some of his colleagues give explanations, but I won’t repeat that gossip. It’s just sad that a man who became famous for having so many good ideas is chaining himself to a very bad one to ensure his legacy. But his legacy was assured a long time ago, and will only be tarnished by his tenacious clinging to group selection.

One other error in the interview, this time made by Wilson himself when discussing the opponents to his view of human sociobiology (now called “evolutionary psychology”):

Sociobiology got a book review on the front page of The New York Times. I think — well, I know — that some very small number of professors at Harvard, in my own department, were upset, because they thought that theories they were working on were the kind that should get recognition.

Wilson is wrong here. He’s referring, of course, to Steve Gould and Dick Lewontin. I knew both of them, for Dick was my advisor and Gould was on my thesis committee, and I never got any inkling that they objected to sociobiology because it dimmed their own professional lights. That’s an uncharitable statement, and not true. Lewontin and Gould fought against sociobiology (along with a lot of other students who then had no lights to dim) because they were ideologically opposed to it: they were pretty much blank-slaters and opposed to biological determinism, thinking that sociobiology would somehow justify a hierarchy of races and sexes and buttress the status quo. I heard Dick and Steve talk about this many times, and also knew Dick very well—certainly well enough to know that the man didn’t have a jealous bone in his body. Steve was more ambitious for public acclaim, but even so I don’t see him going after Wilson because he was jealous.

But what is true is Wilson’s claim that he won the sociobiology debate. In the end, people have accepted sociobiology for many species, and even in humans the discipline of evolutionary psychology is well established, though sometimes prone to exude weak papers.

And the good stuff in the interview. I like how Wilson says people should get into biology:

Q. What are some questions that scientists today should be asking but aren’t asking? What’s causing our blind spots: Funding? Overspecialization? Politics?

A. You’re asking me an impossibly large question. Let me make one suggestion, and maybe that’ll lead to another.

I am unhappy about STEM. That is, I’m unhappy about how it’s presented as the principal portal for careers in science and technology. Young people — in some cases, young enough to be as far back as grammar school — are presented with this intellectual triathlon in order to go into science and technology.

There’s no question that we need all the ablest people that can be recruited to go into science and technology to keep this country strong. But STEM is an unnecessarily forbidding set of stairs.

Consider a young person who’s thrilled by seeing a natural system, a remarkable geological formation that stirs the imagination, or a group of animals or plants. This youngster says, Boy, when I get to college, I would like to move on to a career in science, and biology especially. Now, the STEM-oriented teacher — if we are following the STEM ideology as we hear it — says: “I think that’s a good ambition. But remember that biology is based substantially upon chemistry. So, I advise you to start getting a good background in chemistry. Oh, and while you’re at it, you should keep in mind that chemistry is based upon, to a major degree, principles of physics. So consider starting to get a background in physics, too. And, oh, I almost forgot: To get into physics, and a lot of the best parts of chemistry, you’re going to need ‘M,’ mathematics. So I want you to get started on math courses right now.”

Now, I’m going to say something startling. And I’m going to get myself in trouble. But heck, that’s why you’re here.

Q. Yes.

A. And I’m going to say: Nonsense!

The right way to create a young scientist who’s going to be on fire by the time they’re in college is to let them pick something, some subject, that has really excited them. If they dream of space exploration, if they dream of curing a cancer, if they dream of going to distant jungles and discovering new species — whatever their dream is, let them dream.

Indeed: let them dream! And give them the resources to fulfill their dream!

While I don’t think that science is going to claim hegemony over art, literature, and all the humanities, I also like Ed’s discussion about how consideration of animal perception and consciousness might give art and literature a shot in the arm. This is the kind of poetry that I admire in Wilson’s writing. Here’s his discussion how an infusion of science in the creative arts could create A Great Leap Forward:

Let me give an example. A female moth comes out from the pupa. She’s got to mate. She releases a sex-attraction pheromone that’s carried downwind. In some moths, that pheromone can go downwind for kilometers. The males pick up on it and head upwind. In some species they start flying zigzag.

Imagine those puffs and ellipses of odor: spreading and dying away, spreading and dying away. If you could visualize all of that and walk into nature, you would see an entirely different picture. On the ground, the smallest of the creatures finding one another. Prey. Rival males. Females. A constant maelstrom of chemical communication.

Humans don’t have the capacity to understand the chemical communication going on around us that makes up the real world. We are dumb to that, or anosmic.

But the other thing is that we can’t see beyond a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum. Other organisms can see ultraviolet, or the infrared on the spectrum. Here is a whole opportunity in the humanities. It would be interesting if you could create the optical world of a spider or a bird, and show the world what would be seen or heard by them. You’d be painting an entirely different landscape. You could have a cottonmouth landscape, or a timber rattlesnake landscape. It would be nice to have a gallery of visual representations with the electromagnetic spectrum shifted over, from the point of view of a butterfly or an ant, translated into our narrow human sphere of perception so that we can see what they feel or see.

The humanities should not tolerate limits on themselves. There are so many exciting things to be done with the arts.

I don’t share Wilson’s optimism here, but I like the approach. Still, I don’t think it will replace anthropocentric art and literature.

Finally, Ed emphasizes the importance of collections in museums and—something I especially mourn—the loss of taxonomists and other specialists on groups of organisms. Take Drosophila, for example: perhaps the most studied group from an evolutionary-genetic point of view. If you’re studying biodiversity and speciation in that group, as I have, it’s crucial to have specialists who can help identify and place new species. Yet I can think of only about two Drosophila taxonomists on the planet. There’s no professional acclaim or recognition for such work, which is a damn shame given its importance. You can’t catalogue biodiversity without such people, and biodiversity is something we really need to understand now.


  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 11, 2019 at 12:29 pm | Permalink


    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted May 11, 2019 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

      Try try again…

      Derp breath…



      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted May 11, 2019 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

        Not a typo

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted May 11, 2019 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      This is a sign

  2. Jonathan Wallace
    Posted May 11, 2019 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    “It’s just sad that a man who became famous for having so many good ideas is chaining himself to a very bad one to ensure his legacy.”

    I absolutely agree.

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted May 11, 2019 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    The controversy with Wilson is way outside my area to determine but it was and is heavily discussed. I recall him getting into it in another of his books a few years ago, The Meaning of Human Existence. It reminds me of that odd saying – We may be wrong but we’re sticking to it.

  4. Posted May 11, 2019 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t say that all the other ideas that E.O. Wilson has had have been good. An example is his work with Charles Lumsden on gene-culture coevolution. They manage to make a model in which genetic change and cultural change track each other. But if you work through the details you will see that the natural selection involved is outrageously strong, and that strength is needed to make the whole thing minimally work.

    • Posted May 11, 2019 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think I gave a blanket approbation to Ed. He’s had some good ideas and some bad ones, but of course his overall influence on the field has been salutary.

  5. Christopher
    Posted May 11, 2019 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Gould had some pretty bad ideas himself, Hell, so did Wallace, Newton, and plenty of other scientists. I’m sure there are plenty of reasons why smart people stick with “dumb” ideas, but who am I to judge? I’m a poorly educated history major. I do enjoy Wilson’s writing though, Gould’s, too. The whole issue could be quite informative for those who don’t understand the way science moves forward, as I understand it from the outside looking in, sometimes by the “Thunder dome” where two ideas enter, one idea leaves (if you’ll pardon the silliness of the analogy), sometimes by the passing of one generation and the rise of the next. I still look forward to reading his new book, sitting as is is on my ever-expanding shelf of science books awaiting my attention.

  6. Posted May 11, 2019 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Why were taxonomists more appreciated before than now?

    • Mark R.
      Posted May 11, 2019 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

      I was wondering the same thing. You would think that a lot of entomologists are educated in taxonomy.

      • Posted May 13, 2019 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        There might be a difference between taxonomy recognized as a “service discipline” to others, and recognized on its own terms.

  7. W.Benson
    Posted May 11, 2019 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    When Wilson had water poured on him at the 1978 AAAS meetings in Washington, DC, I was present. I am under the impression that it was a pitcher or jug of water, although that was 40 years ago. The demonstrators, about 6-12(?), had requested and were invited on stage to perform a symbolic act against Wilson, Sociobiolgy, and racism before the talks began. While the group chanted “You’re all wet”, one girl unexpectedly moved behind Wilson and poured water over his head. Wilson’s hair, shirt and pants were, as I remember, soaked. Gould was sitting by Wilson and said he got wet too. In his 1995 autobiography “Naturalist”, Wilson reports that it was a pitcher of water [I haven’t read the book, but I have seen a quote to this effect transcribed online]. Segerstråle said it was a jug of water. Stephen Gould and David Hull report the water was from a plastic cup. Take your pick.

    • Posted May 13, 2019 at 4:25 am | Permalink

      The protest group was “Science for the People”

      Science wrote –
      Sociobiology Baptized as Issue by Activists

      Styles of protest at AAAS meetings have changed since the turbulent times of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, but this year’s meeting saw brief revivals of older forms with picketing by opponents of nuclear power and an assault on the rostrum by critics of sociobiology in which Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson was the target of a water-throwing episode. The latter incident occurred on the afternoon of Wednesday, 15 February, during the final session of a 2-day program, titled Beyond Nature-Nurture – devoted to a discussion of sociobiology. A group of protesters identified with the International Committee Against Racism trooped up to the dais as Wilson was being introduced, chanting uncomplimentary things about sociobiology and Wilson, whose book Sociobiology won broad public attention and has stimulated considerable controversy.

      During the confusion, Wilson was doused with water. The panel moderator invoked the AAAS rule that permits protesters to speak on condition that the meeting then continue. By this time, however. the audience was in an uproar, and it took several minutes for order to return. The moderator then made an apology to Wilson and his copanelists which prompted a standing ovation from the audience. Whereupon Wilson, who had to take all of this sitting down because his ankle was in a cast, proceeded with has paper on “Trends in Sociobiological Research, -Science for the People, a group of political activists who focus on scientific issues and have become a perennial presence at AAAS meetings, concentrated their activities this year on opposition to sociobiology but pointedly disavowed any involvement in the Wilson incident.

      Science 03 Mar 1978:
      Vol. 199, Issue 4332, pp. 955
      DOI: 10.1126/science.199.4332.955-a

    • bugfolder
      Posted May 15, 2019 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      In the current online issue of Quanta magazine (, they interview Wilson, who says: “When I appeared at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), some protesters took over the podium to shout their objections, and one of them came from behind me and dumped a pitcher of ice water on my head.”

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 11, 2019 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    No, their offices were not down the hall from each other, nor even on the same floor.

    Hell, even I knew that, from an anecdote Wilson used to tell about Lewontin getting on the elevator with him one time (a book or two after Sociobiology) and laying a snarky line on him to the effect that “it’s good to see you doing biology again, Ed.”

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 11, 2019 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    … I never got any inkling that they [Gould and Lewontin] objected to sociobiology because it dimmed their own professional lights.

    That was a claim repeated by Tom Wolfe, at least as to Gould, in his 1996 piece “Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died,” part of which was essentially a hagiography of Wilson.

  10. W.Benson
    Posted May 11, 2019 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    I think a case could be made for group selection being responsible for the evolution of sterile castes in eusocial insects. Both individual selection and kin selection should act to maintain the reproduction of individuals and not be responsible for sterility. Giving up reproduction as an altruistic act is not hereditary. Roast me!

  11. mikeb
    Posted May 12, 2019 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    This is all very interesting. These brilliant people, all with foibles . . .

    I love Wilson. ” Biophilia ” is a terrific book, and ” Consilience ” is my inspiration as a fiction writer devoted to elucidating an evolutionary cosmology.

    But I learned in an evolution class (as an adjunct writing instructor, I can take courses with a tuition waiver), I learned of the deficiencies of ” group selectionism. ”

    I also learned that ” just about all ” of SJ Gould’s ideas are ” wrong. ” He was a wonderful writer but an awful, ideologically-bound scientist.

    Likewise, Lewontin said that the book ” The Selfish Gene ” almost made him throw up.

    And, recently, I learned after reading the book ” Mama’s Last Hug ” that de Waal hates, hates, hates Sociobiology!

    Makes understanding this issues ever-difficult for a lay fan of evolution like me.

    • mikeb
      Posted May 12, 2019 at 7:12 am | Permalink

      And thank you — damn you ! — for posting all those links to past reviews & such. Now I’m going to be busy all summer reading . . .

      (I’m taking Human Evolution this fall.)

      • Posted May 13, 2019 at 4:31 am | Permalink

        Niles Eldredge – not immune to bias – wrote in 1995,
        Reinventing Darwin: The Great Debate at the High Table of Evolutionary Theory.

        It is interesting how the debate divides – palaeontologists tend (not always) to be on one side, biologists tend ( but again, not always) to be on the other, then there is something of an Atlantic divide between the British like Maynard Smith & Americans like Gould… really interesting how the ‘Marxists’ were on the US side!

  12. rickflick
    Posted May 12, 2019 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read several of Ed Wilson’s books. Starting with, The Ants. Great books and a great scientist. I remember somewhere he refers to the impact of genetics and biochemistry on his area of descriptive biology. He felt like an outcast when James Watson came to Harvard and started deemphasizing Wilson’s department.

  13. Posted May 13, 2019 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    I have seen pieces of these fights over the years from the outside, and I agree there was no professional grandstanding on the *inside*, but I do sometimes get the impression that some concerned do that to the *public*. (I believe that AI researcher John McCarthy had the same point.)

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